It’s 4:30am. It’s dark but the warmth of the air hugs me like an overbearing aunt who hasn’t seen you for years and still treats you like the little boy she remembers. Above me, thousands of the brightest pin pricks of light pierce the inky black sky. Behind me, silhouettes resembling huge soft breasts undulate gently in the still morning air. The tropical nocturnal chorus is broken by high spirited locals’ voices.
It’s been four days since I left London; four planes, two buses and a boat ride later, I’m now halfway across the world and back in South East Asia, a region which stole my heart some 22 years ago and which I’ve subsequently travelled to and around more than any other. But although the terrain is familiar, everything also feels so alien this time around – somewhere that, for good reason has been kept hidden and therefore unfettered by tourism, but sadly ravaged by other demons, in this case, political strife. This is Bagan, in a country which – depending upon your point of view – is either called Burma or Myanmar.
Officially, the name is Myanmar (its pre- and post-colonial name) but it is still known to many – despite the official name change in 1989 – by its colonial moniker, Burma. A left-over name from another time, considered by many as both impolite and insensitive, but to others seen as an act of political defiance or at the very least, neutrality. The British Broadcasting Corporation for example, still on ocassion refer to the country as Burma. This is because the name change was implemented by the military junta who took power of the country in 1974 and who have been the cause of widespread political condemnation due mostly to their terrible human rights record. So to use the ‘official’ name imposed by an unelected dictatorship is an act of complicity, adding authenticity to their claim to power.
The controversy over its very name is just one example of the complexity and contradictions of this astoundingly beautiful country. Its history is peppered with drama – from murderous queens and hostile invasions, to colonialism, religion and ethnic tensions. Yet on the other hand, it is one of the most stunning and untouched places on the planet, seemingly populated by equally beautiful, curious and good-spirited people; and on the surface, almost completely and utterly unaffected by the ravages of tourism, rife in other parts of South East Asia.
But all that – potentially – is about to change, which makes the timing of this particular trip all the more poignant. After decades of oppression, the first democratic elections in 25 years are about to take place in Myanmar. And despite the rumoured official ‘ban’ on locals talking to foreigners about politics, the conversation rarely ever strays from the subject. There is a visible excitement and optimism surrounding the election. The streets are filled with ‘National League for Democracy’ flags and images of its famous leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – AKA ‘The Lady’. Such public acts of defiance are a clear indication that something fundamental has, in fact, already changed in the public psyche.
This is a country pregnant with the promise of modernity and economic expansion. It’s chock-full of mostly untapped natural resources – being rich in vast gas and mineral deposits – yet the majority of its population still live a hand-to-mouth existence, particularly in rural parts of the country, still employing medieval, labour-intensive methods of farming and light industry. The British employed a heavy-handed brand of colonialism here in the dying days of their empire but despite that, are remembered with nostalgia by some, and contempt by others. The intervening years have been far from easy – military rule, political unrest, draconian laws, corruption, mismanagement, ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses which led to the country becoming the subject of various economic sanctions – leaving what was once one of the most advanced and prosperous of all South East Asian countries at least 20 years behind its neighbours.
While nearby India and Thailand flourish in the new Asiacentric era, Myanmar remains a backwater of unrest, derision and poverty. Brutal fighting between ethnic groups has ravaged some areas, unchecked by the ruling military – all of which has added to the call from the opposition for foreigners not to visit, as money raised from the tourism industry could be used to prop up and further encourage the corrupt regime. The imminent ‘free and open’ elections have been a long time coming and their significance for the people cannot be underestimated.
Since the country first went under military rule in 1974, the surrounding region has changed beyond recognition. Myanmar is now bordered by two of the world’s fastest growing and most talked–about economies – India and China – and with the South East Asian powerhouse Thailand to its East also on a renewed upward climb, it could not be better positioned to take advantage of this untapped potential for economic and social growth. This is a land rich, dripping in fact, in natural resources; from gold, minerals, precious stones, a largely intact rainforest (which supports one of the only remaining, intact, bio-diverse ecosystems in the world, boasting wild tigers, whose very existence at the top of the food chain dictates the abundance and variety of smaller species) and perhaps most significantly, huge deposits of incredibly precious, natural gas.
The natural blessings bestowed on this land are no better appreciated than from above. This particular morning, the sun is just beginning to creep around the horizon, turning the dense blackness of the night into the milky blue of dawn. It is in this light that the hot–air ballons, graceful titans of the skies, show their true colour – a deep rich burgundy – their mass created by powerful jets throwing out searing hot flames which lift their silk envelopes, billowing gently like the robes of the local Buddhist monks with which they share their colour. The balloons take off, having been carefully positioned to provide the best possible view of Bagan’s jaw–droppingly beautiful temple region from the sky.
The next 40 minutes are undeniably one of the most magical experiences of my life. The sensation of floating weightlessly over the most unreal of time–forgotten dreamscapes, peppered with Buddhist pagodas, wrapped in mist and barely touched by the early morning light, will stay with me for the rest of my days. I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve seen some amazing things, but even I had to stifle a tear at the beauty of the moment. I wasn’t alone. Each member of the group, including our pilot, recounts their sense of wonder and privilege the experience gave them. “How do you like my office?” he jokes, clearly high on the adrenaline rush that his job gives him. “You could never get bored of this,” he quickly adds, and I can only respond with a nod of agreement.
With so much money involved in Myanmar’s natural resources, the stakes are high. The unspoilt natural beauty, the traditional methods of farming and the subsequent rural population that supports it will inevitably change. It’s currently a place where one can still see farmers transporting hand-cut crops in oxen-drawn wooden carts, or straw–hatted fishermen casting individual nets all set against National Geographic– worthy, photogenic scenery: paddy-fields and gently flowing rivers where you can cruise leisurely past endless, golden pagodas. All of these are the guaranteed sights from the deck of Belmond’s ‘Road To Mandalay’ river cruiser which has become synonymous with the Ayeyarwady river. For almost 20 years, it has graced the leisurely, calm waters between Bagan and Mandalay while its younger sister ship, the Orcaella, winds its own way along the no less stunning Chindwin River.
For those who may still question the ethics of travelling to and in Myanmar – the opposition called for tourists to boycott the country in the 1990s to stem the tide of money going into the government’s coffers, a plea largely observed by the international community until 2011 – then it may be of interest to note that both Belmond ships deliver essential medical supplies and free clinics to the communities along their routes. Dr Hla Tun, the ship’s doctor, comes from a huminatrian background, having himself set-up free emergency clinics(in the abscence of any governmental support) to relieve the suffering of South Western rural populations following the catastrophic floods of 2008. The doctors’ time is paid for by the company whilst all the medical supplies and building materials for clinics and schools are donated by Belmond’s guests. Over the time that the company has been running these cruises, their sense of social responsibility has grown to become fundamental to the operation, and crew – many of whom are from the local area – making the sight of this majestic vessel on the horizon both meaningful and welcome to the local populations. Families are reunited and community ties cemented, children are provided with what would ordinarily be prohibitively expensive stationery and people travel for days to receive medical attention. Of course, one might also question the morality of taking a luxury cruise in a country with so many socio-economic issues and this should of course always be a personal decision.
Nevertheless, I found it humbling to witness the clear and unwavering commitment to the wellbeing of the people along the river by the Belmond staff, proving that their hearts are as big as their beaming smiles. That’s not to say that they are any less attentive to the needs of their guests. Every whim is catered for and the facilities for a relatively compact boat are extensive. The ship comes complete with a spa, gym, decktop pool, two cocktail bars and an excellent restaurant. The service, as you would expect from Belmond, is exemplary, characterised by the welcome sight of a cold towel and refreshing cool drink, lovingly presented to you each and every time you return to the ship following an excursion to yet another amazing sight, be that cycling through the countryside to visit ancient temples, taking a gondola to witness the sun setting on the U Bein Bridge, glass of champagne in hand, or simply getting up early to watch the staff present alms to the monks outside the monastery at Mandalay. Each carefully planned excursion offered something different and spectacular, leaving me in awe and instilling in me the desire to return to this place. I felt an even greater desire to see the country get back on its feet economically and politically, and exorcise the demons of its tumultuous past.
Myanmar may not be a perfect country politically, but it does have the potential to make a real step change, albeit in its own peculiar way. And I hope that this new dawn brings with it the light of fairness worthy of its undeniable beauty and richness. Martin was the guest of Belmond. For more information on their offerings in Myanmar visit www.belmond.com
- Wake up and get high. A dawn balloon ride over the stunning temple region of Bagan is one of the most beautiful and awe–inspiring things you can do. Weather permitting, you’ll get an amazing view and ever– lasting memories.
- Ditch the shorts and get yourself a longyi, the traditional Burmese wrap–around, sarong– style garment. It’s so adaptable you can even turn it into an elephant to amuse local kids.
- Get yourself some Thanaka. This traditional Burmese bark, scraped over a wet stone produces a yellow, creamy, completely natural sunscreen. Rubbing wood on your face has never been so beneficial.
- Make sure you have a decent camera and stock up on memory cards. Myanmar has to be one of the most photogenic places on the planet. Every turn reveals a new Kodak moment.
- Local businesses in Myanmar don’t like to take crumpled notes. So stock up on plenty of crisp bank–fresh US Dollars and a decent sized wallet to keep them in pristine condition, which is suprisingly hard to do.
The inside track
So Kwah Thu is a Yangon resident and Belmond’s Tour Manager. He’s a walking encyclopedia of Myanmar. www.belmond.com
Port Autonomy Restaurant Gay chef Kevin Ching’s relaxed, food truckstyle, open–air bistro typifies new Yangon. It’s fun and contemporary, showcasing a mix of regional dishes with mexican flavours and serves refreshing but potent cocktails.
Shwedagon Pagoda No trip to Yangon is complete without a visit to this stunning 2,500 year-old Pagoda, consisting of hundreds of temples, stupas and statues. www.shwedagonpagoda.com
Pomelo Handicraft There’s no better place in Yangon for unique gifts. Everything sold in this fairtrade store is handmade by local people and raises money for the disadvantaged. www.pomelomyanmar.org